Rating: ★★★★★ 

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann. Doubleday (2009), 313 pages.

There are many reasons to read this book, the primary one being the ending, which I will refrain from saying anything about, even though I really, really want to. The second reason would be the catalogue of countless gruesome ways to die in the Amazon, complete with firsthand accounts. Of course there’s malaria, venomous snakes and frogs, and piranhas with “staring malignant eyes,” but there’s also going completely mad and dashing into the depths of the jungle never to be seen again, stampeding “white-lipped wild pigs,” “red hairy chiggers that consume human tissue,” “cyanide-squirting millipedes,” and my favorite: the tiny species of bee that is drawn to the moisture in our eyes and invades the pupils. Oh, and just in case you thought you escaped the Amazon unscathed, there’s also the bug that bites you on the lips and twenty years later you die of “heart or brain swelling.”

This is a first-rate blending of history, natural science, and personal adventure—the author becomes a vital character in the book as he takes on the quest for Z for himself, rather inexplicably, as he’s never really hiked or camped before. Thus the “deadly obsession.” It seems that everyone who studies this mystery in any depth soon becomes strangely gripped by the urge to go to the Amazon for themselves, and they usually do not return. The mystery at the heart of the story is twofold: Was there ever a city of Z? And what happened to the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who returned to the Amazon (after several very successful trips mapping heretofore unexplored regions of Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru) in 1925 with his young son and his son’s best friend and was never heard from again?

Their mysterious disappearance was the topic of intense speculation throughout the mass media for many, many years and spawned numerous rescue attempts—but most of the rescuers never returned. And the rumors & speculation are apparently alive and well to this day in certain quarters: “Many Brazilians had told us that, over the past few decades, religious cults had sprung up in the area that worshipped Fawcett as a kind of God. They believed that Fawcett had entered a network of underground tunnels and discovered that Z was, of all things, a portal to another reality.” To this day, cultish types descend upon Brazil from all over the world with plans to use the portal in various ways.

Fawcett was a very eccentric character and unlike any other explorer of his time. There was his inhuman-like natural resistance to just about any malady the Amazon could cough up while all his expedition-mates were dying around him; it’s as though he was actually a native rainforest animal of some sort trapped in the wrong body. He also had highly unusual attitudes for the times regarding natives peoples and protection of the forest. He employed, for example, a strict, nonnegotiable policy of nonviolence toward any native people his expeditions encountered, even if the tribe members appeared threatening and even if they raised bows and arrows against them. This caused near mutiny among his men on more than one occasion, but it also allowed Fawcett to gain the trust of locals who had killed and cannibalized other explorers.

The author’s journalistic detective work is uncanny (and the third reason to read this book). After seventy years’ worth of thousands of other people trying to uncover the truth about Z, he almost effortlessly acquires access to secret, never-before-seen papers and letters written by Fawcett that convince him he will succeed in solving the mystery of Z’s existence.

And so Fawcett and his party were forced to wander hungry through the jungle. The men wanted to turn back, but Fawcett was determined to find the Verde’s source. They stumbled forward, mouths open, trying to capture every drop of rain. At night, chills swept through their bodies. A tocandira—a poisonous ant that can cause vomiting and intense fever—had infected Fisher, and a tree had fallen on the leg of another member of the party, so that his load had to be dispersed among the others. Nearly a month after they started on foot, the men reached what appeared to be the source of the river, Fawcett insisting on taking measurements, even though he was so depleted that he had trouble moving his limbs. The party paused momentarily for a photograph: they looked like dead men, their cheeks whittled to the bones, their beards matted against their faces like growth from the forest, their eyes half-mad.

*        *        *

Before long, a tiny, stooped woman appeared through a back door. She held a child’s hand for support and moved slowly toward us, as if leaning into a strong wind. She wore a floral cotton dress and had long gray hair, which framed a face so wizened that her eyes were almost invisible. Taukane explained that the woman was the oldest member of the village and had seen Fawcett and his expedition come through. “She is probably the last living person to have encountered them,” he said.

She sat down in a chair, her bare feet hardly reaching the floor. Using Taukane and Paolo to translate from English into Portuguese and then into Bakairí, I asked her how old she was. “I don’t know my exact age,” she said. “But I was born around 1910.” She continued, “I was just a little girl when the three outsiders came to stay in our village. I remember them because I had never seen people so white and with such long beards.”

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